Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Profanity: Some strong and offensive/abusive language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense wartime peril and violence, characters injured, abused, and killed, some disturbing images, parent strikes a child with a belt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2014
Date Released to DVD: March 23, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00HLTDC9O
Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures
Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie breaks into the top ranks of American directors with “Unbroken,” showing an exceptional understanding not just of actors, but of tone, scale, and letting the camera tell the story. Working with the magnificent cinematography of Roger Deakins (“True Grit,” “Skyfall”), she adopts a classical style well-suited to the WWII setting, but every choice is careful, thoughtful, and powerful.

Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand, this is the story of Louis Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants. He was a rebellious kid who became an Olympic athlete. His bomber plane crashed over the Pacific, and he survived for 47 days at sea, before being captured with one surviving crewmate, by the Japanese. In the prison camp, he was singled out for horrific abuse and repeatedly beaten.

The screenplay by the famously off-beat Joel and Ethan Coen is straightforward, direct, and sincere, keeping the focus on the war years, with the incidents from Zamperini’s past brought it primarily to show us how he relies on his memories to keep going. “Nobody’s chasing me,” he tells his brother who is urging him to run faster as he trains for a race. “I’m chasing you,” his brother tells him.

That internalized sense of mission helps him hold onto the idea of his own power as the brutal Japanese captors try to take everything away from him.

The opening scene puts us in the sky, and Jolie superbly evokes the thrill and the terror of flying on a bombing mission in aircraft that seem barely past the era of the Wright brothers. The crash scene is vertiginously disorienting. Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini with an effortless masculinity, understanding that it has nothing to do with macho posturing, just an imperishable sense of integrity, courage, and honor. O’Connell, Finn Witrock (“Noah”), and Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”) perfectly capture the rhythms of an experienced crew, some amiable wisecracks and bravado to recognize the perilousness of their situation, but always focused, on task, and always, always, putting the team first.

We become so attached that it is sharply painful to see the characters experience such deprivation and abusive treatment. Japanese pop star Miyavi (real name Takamasa Ishihara) plays the sadistic Mutsushiro Watanabe, known as Bird. He knows of Zamperini’s celebrity as an athlete and sees that he is a symbol to the other prisoners.

If the Bird can break Zamperini, it will crush the morale of the whole camp. So, he singles Zamperini out for beatings and mind games. But Zamperini knows that “we beat them by making it to the end of the war alive.” He simply will not give up, and defining his own sense of what it means to win allows him to maintain a sense of control that is his most powerful weapon.

It is gorgeously filmed, superbly acted, and directed with great sensitivity and compassion, but the real impact of the film comes at the end, when we learn through a few simple titles, what happened to Zamperini after the war. Even Jolie recognizes that there is nothing she can put on screen to match the real-life footage of Zamperini, back in Japan at four days before his 81st birthday, running with the Olympic torch.

Parents should know that this movie includes very intense and disturbing wartime peril and violence, with a plane crash, an extended period lost at sea, and grueling prison camp abuse, and some strong language including racist epithets. School-age bullies harass and punch a character and a parent beats a child with a belt.

Family Discussion: What was the toughest challenge for Louis? Why didn’t he give up? Why did he forgive his captors?

If you like this, try: the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, and Zamperini’s own book, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life, along with the films Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, also based on real-life WWII stories of American prisoners of war.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Sports War